The end of the great movie videogame cash-grab

 

By Neil Merrett

It was once common for every blockbuster movie to have a faintly recognisable videogame tie–in that tenuously tried to let you live out your own silver screen adventure. In celebrating 10 years of film journalism from our friends at Battle Royale with Cheese, we ponder where our rushed Black Panther game has gone.

For ten years, the film site Battle Royale with Cheese has been offering interviews, insight and a smidge of gritty reflection on the good, bad and ugly of cinema in one of the most politically uncertain periods in post-WW2 history.

Yes, this is a shameless plug for BWRC. The site has become a significant name in looking at the development of both hollywood and independent films in what became the Marvel-dominated decade of cinema.

Yet over this same period of explosions and cinematic superheroics, video game tie-ins strangely died off from what once a lucrative stream of merchandising before the ubiquitous superhero era of cinema that we find ourselves in.  This was a time where films such as Jurassic Park and Independence Day – as opposed to their underwhelming sequels – ruled the roost.

But is this end of an era a loss to gaming as a whole when a planned game tie-in to the 2008 blockbuster ‘The Dark Knight’ was eventually scrapped for the massively popular Arkham series of games? These were titles that sought to rethink how superheroes could be portrayed and written for interactive media?  Games need not be tied to a major film anymore when they could be a narrative event of their own kind.

Warning spoilers in the following video:

At the same time, a new age of smartphones not only ensured we as a species were nearly permanently online in some form, but that we could also indulge in a spot of on the go gaming.  This created a whole new boon for budget or smaller games based on movies with reduced development costs.

A rhetorical question

As the evolving nature of video gaming continues to build its own franchises and unique narrative approaches to story, what way then to better honour ten years of hard work from Battle Royale with Cheese then eith an anniversary stream of gaming movies?

This involved looking at a range of tie-in games that were ever strongly inspired by movies or sold as a faintly recognisable facsimile where you could kinda, sort of, live out your own cinematic adventures with a poorly rendered caricature of early 1990s Bruce Willis.

What then can be learnt from an era of games where Michael Jackson’s popularity and burgeoning notoriety saw him for a time rival Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog as a gaming icon, or when a famously costly Kevin Costner vanity project can inspire a semi-successful mashup of the Desert Strike, Contra and Ecco the Dolphin series?

The stream looked at games ranging from Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on the Sega Megadrive (1990), through to a handheld game sequel to Jurassic Park that was released on the Nintendo Game Boy in 1994.

The event even included the noir-themed shooter Max Payne, which was released on Playstation 2 in 2001 and was revolutionary for including Matrix-inspired bullet time mechanics where the player could dramatically lunge out of the path of bullets.

Max Payne itself became a 2008 movie starring Mark Wahlberg that was critically panned for perhaps being an utterly redundant attempt to emulate a game that itself sought to recreate and emulate the generic style of action movies of that era. Just a few years later, the game’s developers, Rockstar Games, built an immensely more cinematic sequel following the aged hero battling a violent conspiracy and his own demons on the beautifully realised streets of a digital Brazil.

MAXP3

Technical limitations

At the time of their release and in the intervening decades that have followed, the technical limitations of 8-bit and 16-bit videogames has not been necessarily kind to digital Bruce Willis and Michael Jackson. Some would argue reality was more punishing for them, but that is a topic for another time.

Most of these games were therefore limited to a much narrower selection of gaming genres from the 80s and 90s. This era often meant fitting a films sometimes complex plotting or limited action beats into a simple 2D platform action game, regardless of their relation to the plot or characters of the game.

Take the game version of the Bruce Willis action comedy caper Hudson Hawk. This was released to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991.

The cartoonish, comedy caper, which follows a highly skilled cat burglar, played by Willis, whose main gimmick is to perform well-timed robberies synced to some classic crooning tunes by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Hanging on a star

Arguably a US$65 excuse for Bruce Willis and friends to produce a swing album, the film was a mix of slapstick, romance and action, some of which is better suited to early 90s platform games than others.

Yet this 8-bit Bruce Willis is charged in the game with sneaking under and over security sensors, navigating hazardous traps to steal treasures hidden in vaguely recognisable settings from the film and using baseballs to distract guard dogs or incapacitate skateboarding enemies.

hudsonhawk

Combined with unforgiving jumps that require the main character to gather momentum, the strange little tie-in to an already unconventional film had a strangely appealing stealth mechanic that would one day be much better perfected in a range of 2D and 3D games.

Yet in all these games streamed for the BWRC celebration, even the worst, or least playable games, made some sort of primitive attempt to convey certain components of their source movie. Take the videogame of Platoon, released on the NES in 1987, a year after the brutal war movie’s release.

Here a GI must battle through Vietnamese jungle to get to safety. The title’s technical limitations, leading to similar jungle environs across the game and fighting the same enemy sprite endlessly respawning just off screen where they cannot be seen, inadvertently managed to recreate a sense of loss and overwhelming Guerilla warfare that surprisingly was on tone for the movie.

It is clear though in the last ten years that video games, although increasingly cinematic in their scope and scale as console technology evolves, more often thrive when creating their own approaches to character and challenge.

It was ironic that Super Mario, a shallow but endlessly malleable videogame character, was arguably at his least successful when converted into a Hollywood movie that saw the character crowbarred into an oddly cynical, but generic Blade Runner-esque Sci-Fi setting.

At the same time, Robocop was a massive hit for the NES based on the satirical, highly violent science fiction film of the same name. Arguably a Reagan-era remake of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s film tackled themes of rampant commercialism and its corrosive impact on vital public services, the militarisation of the police, as well as industrial and urban decay and the potential dehumanizing effects of an increased reliance on technology. Just how little of a human for instance can exist inside a machine before it loses its humanity.

“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”

This was all conveyed in the game by punching and eventually shooting street punks across a range of drab, blighted urban landscapes while fighting other cyborg punching creatures all to a jaunty remix of the original Robocop theme.

Even the film’s violence and gun play feels restricted in the game, which does little to invoke the film beyond a few visual references and the eventual inclusion of the iconic ED-209 robot.

In the game, it is a major boss character that must be shot a couple of times. Yet in the film, the grotesquely overpowered urban pacification robot is used to outline Robocop’s dark humour and the dangers of corporate negligence when charged with upholding law and protecting life at a cost.

There is a peril when placing a very specific cost on a human life, a point Robocop hammers home by offering an uneasy balance of bloody horror and humour.

The unique language of film then has been hugely influential in the evolution of videogames, and was once arguably an important means of inspiration for character and stories.

Yet over the last decade, games have increasingly developed their own effective techniques for conveying themes of satire, loss, companionship, family and even mental health in a manner that is often cinematic, yet completely unique to the medium.

Even superheroes, the most financially successful genre over the last decade, have been much less prevalent in games than in films. With successes such as Arkham Asylum and Sony’s recent Spider-Man game being unique properties rather than a specific product associated with a film.

Games then are clearly their own unique media, still inspired visually by the best and worst of modern cinema, and yet somehow inspiring our modern movies in return. Seems like a fair trade.

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